Sunday, 19 June 2011

Shined/shone: The answer is in the stars

This is the final part (for the time being) of my musings sparked off by reading ‘Murder in Mykonos’ and examining the various uses of ‘shined’ and ‘shone’ as the past tense of the verb ‘to shine’ (see previous two posts).

Figurative use
Let me pick up the discussion where we left off, with the observation that the intransitive use of ‘shined’ is more common in a figurative context than when the verb retains its literal meaning, as in the following contrastive examples:

The stars that shone in the night sky
The stars who shined at the Oscars

But it’s a little more complicated than that. After all, it is frequently unclear at which point figurative or metaphorical usage becomes so commonplace that it is treated as literal meaning. To pursue the example taken from the Oscars a little further, the use the word ‘star’ as in ‘film star’ is not generally regarded as a metaphor, but merely as another meaning for the word ‘star’. The same phenomenon can take place with verbs. The general context plays an important part in this, too. In Hollywood terms, for example, the attachment to the literal meanings of ‘star’ and ‘shone’ and to the notion of light is much weaker than in the example of outshining the Sun King.

The power of context
Applying this notion to the transitive use of the verb ‘to shine’, the direct context can have a significant effect on the choice of form. For example, we would commonly find:

He shined his flashlight     


He shone his flashlight.

But by contrast,

He shined my shoes

would prevail over

He shone my shoes

Why? Because in the second example, the verb has taken on an extended meaning inasmuch as the relationship between the verb and the direct object is a different one. Clearly, in both cases, the action involves making something shine, i.e. causing it to emit light in some way, but we can illustrate the difference by analysing the examples further:

In both cases, the object is made to shine, but whereas you can ‘shine a light’ on something’, you can not ‘shine shoes on something.’

In a sense, the verb in the first example is not really ‘to shine’ + object, but ‘to shine a light on’ + object.

To simply the effect of context on meaning here, we can observe:

Shine a light = illuminate
Shine shoes = polish

This is why the butler shined (rather than shone) the silverware.

Dynamic feedback
Here, we see that there is a semantic feedback loop between the influence of the context and the form we tend to choose.

But this feedback loop is not absolute and it is not constant; it follows a pattern, but the pattern is not a simple one. And it must be superimposed onto the previous insights concerning variations in usage in different cultural contexts and over a period of time.

The result is a dynamic feedback loop in which the context influences both form and meaning.

This feedback loop highlights the fundamentally fractal nature of language. This is a concept I have explained in detail in The Fractal Approach to Teaching English as a Foreign Language. The essence of my argument is that language demonstrates many of the characteristics of fractal forms, in particular:

  • Self-similarity
  • Dynamism
  • Self-organisation 

Fractals are everywhere
Fractals are the mathematical forms that define the natural world; they can be observed in the shapes of leaves, clouds and coastlines; they are present at the microscopic level and in the cosmos. Everything from minute organisms to star formations and teeming galaxies manifest the complexity of fractal geometry. And so does the language we use.

So the short answer to the conundrum of shine/shone is that both are instance variables of a narrowly bounded fractal pattern of form and usage in which semantic and grammatical subsets overlap within a dynamic superset of observed and acceptable real-life language.

But of course, it’s a little more complicated than that…

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Shining at the Oscars

Many thanks to englishskills1111 who rightly pointed out that irregular verbs tend to become regular over time and that consequently, ‘shone’ is somewhat more antiquated than ‘shined’.
So far, we have looked at three possible distinctions between different usages of these forms:
  • ‘Shined’ tends to be used in American English; ‘shone’ is more common in British English.
  • ‘Shined’ is transitive; ‘shone’ is intransitive.
  • ‘Shined’ is the modern form; ‘shone’ is more antiquated.

And whilst all of these distinctions are clearly defensible, none of them quite tell the full story.
Enter the Sun King
Let’s look at the matter in a little more detail:

The AE/BE divide clearly does not tell the whole story, since many writers of English are not specifically under the influence of one culture and the evidence shows that usage varies in both groups. 

Nor does a straightforward classification into transitive and intransitive bear close scrutiny.

Both of the following examples are transitive:
The man who outshone the Sun King (Biographical work by Charles Drazin, 2008)

I’m feeling outshined (Lyrics to Outshined by rock band Soundgarden, 1991)

And although there is certainly a generation issue, too, with younger speakers/writers preferring regular forms, ‘shone’ is used both transitively and intransitively on both sides of the Atlantic (and elsewhere), but ‘shined’ is reserved mainly for transitive use, so you would expect to encounter ‘the sun shone’ much more frequently than ‘the sun shined.’ 

A further dimension
Where there is a choice, however, some – mainly but not exclusively, American – writers consistently favour regular verb forms over irregular ones and extend this principle to the past tense of ‘shine’, even when used intransitively: 

Which star shined brightest at the Oscars?

In part, this can be explained by adding a further dimension in which the intransitive use of ‘shined’ is more common in a figurative context than when the verb retains its literal sense:

The stars that shone in the night sky
The stars who shined at the Oscars

But it’s a little more complicated than that. It has something to do with the nature of language and something to do with fractals. In a way, the answer is in the stars. And I’ll explain why next time.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Murder in Mykonos and a shining example

I shined my shoes; he shone a light on me; her beauty shone and the sun shined brightly.

Correct usage
Whilst opinions differ on what constitutes ‘correct’ usage of ‘shined’ and ‘shone’ as the past tense of the verb shine, the simple fact is that all the examples quoted above are perfectly acceptable, although individual speakers will, of course, have their own preferences. But what, you may ask, has this got to do with murder in Mykonos?

Dastardly deeds
Returning recently from an all-too-brief trip to Athens and Aegina, Ann and I made our customary inspection of the bookstands at the airport and my eye fell on the cover of a thriller entitled ‘Murder in Mykonos’ by Jeffrey Siger. Having never heard of either the author or the local publisher (aiKaterini Lalaouni Editions) I decided the book would make a nice memento of our trip, especially as it would probably not be so readily available elsewhere. A straightforward whodunit nicely peppered with local colour and an obvious passion for the Greek islands and their legends, this damsel-in-distress detective story made light bedtime reading and was quickly digested. Indeed, it would not be a subject for comment here if it were not for the fact that the tale itself involved a generous helping of underground tunnels, disused mines and dastardly doings at night time.

Shining a light 
Needless to say, our heroic detective makes repeated use of his flashlight, which he frequently directs toward the objects of his attention:

He shined his light on the floor by the wall (p 229)
He shined his flashlight against his chest, so Tassos could see his face. (p 333)
He shined his light on the rocks scattered by the door. (ibid)

So  many of these occurrences in fact, that I began to ponder the use of ‘shined’ as a past participle of the verb ‘to shine.’ Siger, a native American who has lived on Mykonos for some 25 years, is quite consistent in his use of the regular form of the past tense when the verb takes a direct object and of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Why then, did something niggle at the back of my mind each time I read a sentence such as the ones above? Why, for that matter, would I have never written such a sentence myself?

It would be all too easy to assume that as a native speaker of British English, I might say ‘he shone his torch,’ whilst an American would say ‘he shined his flashlight.’ Easy, but quite wrong. First of all, I would probably use ‘flashlight’ in an international context too, since I generally want to be understood. And whilst I would not normally sway from my instinctive tendency to use ‘shone’ in this context, it is not a simple matter of a US/UK divide. It is much more complicated than that. It has something to do with the family silver and something to do with the beauty of fractals... and I'll explain why in my next post.

Murder in Mykonos
The Fractal Approach to Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

My Word Of The Year 2010: 'Simples'

‘But I can’t teach that!’
In a recent Tweet, I nominated as my Word Of The Year 2010 the marvellously creative and pseudo-erroneously inflected ‘simples’ as immortalised in ‘A Simples Life’ by (the creators of) Aleksandr Orlov. A fellow English teacher picked up on this, claiming, ‘but it’s wrong.’ Needless to say, I pointed out that this particular usage may have been deemed unacceptable before it was popularised through advertising, but had now entered common parlance. Still, the teacher persisted, ‘but I can’t teach my students to use forms like that. It’s not grammatically correct.’ Old habits die hard.

‘Yes, you can!’
My point here is that whilst you may decide not to teach such usage, you can’t ignore it either. Almost all instances of creative use of language start out by defying some norm or other; that is what makes them creative in the first place. From an EFL/ESL point of view, this does not mean that aberrations should be ignored any more than they should be blithely and indiscriminately taught. It merely means that teachers should be very conscious of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Shying away from originality and protecting students from the same is as inadvisable as accepting all forms of street English as unequivocally acceptable simply because they are authentic.

The key is to distinguish – and to ensure that students also learn to distinguish – between language taught and learnt in the furtherance of passive skills (I call these ‘knowledge and appreciation items’) and the language which students are expected to learn for the purposes of active production (‘imitation items’). Indeed, it is one of the most fascinating – and ultimately rewarding - challenges of the language teacher’s remit to decide how far down the rabbit hole the students need to go.

In the case of ‘simples’, other factors are at work, too. Teaching for appreciation would involve a large degree of contextualisation – almost certainly involving lots of fun with videos and text extracts – which in the case of students of Marketing or Business English could be of immense value but which might be unnecessarily time-consuming with other groups of learners. Neither the teacher’s own sense of displeasure nor enthusiasm for innovation alone should determine a lesson or its content; the decision whether or not to teach a particular item should ideally be based on the needs of the students rather than the predilections of the teacher.

Context and humour
Teaching the context of ‘simples’ also involves dealing with issues such as humour, irony, peer-group recognition and intercultural awareness, and these are also factors influencing my decision to highlight this word and this particular usage. And without in any way condoning or endorsing the products and services involved in the attendant advertising campaign, I find that this is one instance where the world of advertising engenders sheer delight in innovation and combines linguistic originality with a true sense of fun.

But why ‘simples’?
However, apart from the elements of linguistic creativity and ostensible self-mockery, there were other reasons for my choice of ‘simples’ as word of the year. Firstly, most candidates from the political arena (austerity, double-dip and so on) only seemed to indicate that history was repeating itself (although I could have made a case for ‘cuts’ in a British context), whilst it also seemed a little trite to resort to any of the endless stream of neo-neologisms and semantic shifts prevalent in the digital world, so I likewise discarded anything to do with apps, hashtags and twittermania and any contraction beginning with ‘i-‘; apart from which, none of the terms from the digital or mobile worlds really stood out or came to the fore in 2010. ‘Simples’ of course, has been in use since the first ‘Compare the Meerkat’ TV ad was broadcast in July 2009 and arguably I might have chosen it in that year, but to me, 2010 was the year when the image of Aleksandr Orlov came to be fleshed out to such an extent that the character and his impeccably peccable embellishments to the English language really entered popular consciousness in Britain – and came to deserve wider appreciation elsewhere. More importantly, however, I chose ‘simples’ because the usage is unusual in that its origin can be traced back quite clearly to a single source whence it has constantly gained momentum, and not least of all because the year ended (more or less) with the publication of ‘A Simples Life’, a truly hilarious account of how a simple meerkat rose from humble beginnings to trek across the Kalahari, brave the ocean waves, build a business empire in Moscow and unabashedly enter the vernacular.

A Simples Life (book):
A Simples Life (video):
Controversies in ELT (book):
Controversies in ELT (info):

About 'Controversies In ELT'

'Controversies In ELT' is both a title and an attitude of mind. Whereas the main focus is on issues relating to English Language Teaching, my aim has always been to go to beyond the normal remit of the ELT author and investigate areas at the fringes of current practice as well as to question some of the time-honoured axioms on which modern language teaching is based.

The book of the same title explores a number of these issues, ranging from the death of the communicative approach and the fallacy of the native speaker teacher to the use of word set maps in language teaching and the birth of the fractal approach, but language teaching is such a vast and varied field that other controversies rage.

Or at least they should.

In my view, language teachers should constantly question the assumptions on which their work is based; improvement comes from debate and controversies fuel that debate.

I therefore urge all language teachers to:

- constantly strive for improvement
- practice critical thinking
- question the nature of their role
- go beyond expectations
- seek the controversial.

Controversies in ELT (book):
Controversies in ELT (info):